Here are the week’s top stories.
1. James City County may merge its emergency communications center with York County’s – and some local residents aren’t happy about it.
- James City County is again reviewing the possibility of merging its emergency dispatch center with York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Emergency Communications. The Board of Supervisors voted last Tuesday to allow negotiations to take place on a possible consolidation.
- The proposal was quickly met with frustration by James City County dispatchers, and an online petition was launched in hopes of keeping the center in its existing location. Over 1,800 people had signed the petition as of Friday morning.
- During the meeting, several county officials said staffing levels have dropped too low, so consolidation may be the only option.
- “It’s getting close to that point where we’re not going to be able to man the center,” said Assistant County Administrator Brad Rinehimer.
- James City County dispatchers have been working out of the York County emergency services center for the past five weeks. James City County’s dispatch facility sustained extensive electrical damage while a contractor was working on a generator at the site. Rinehimer said the arrangement has been smooth, overall, and he is now more confident that consolidation would be feasible.
- But according to Marc Stedman, a retired James City County police officer who started the petition, the center has been operating at minimum staffing capacity since the beginning, and additional positions will be filled within the coming weeks. James City County’s emergency communications center currently has 26 dispatchers and needs 28 to be considered fully staffed, he said.
- “The only reason given to us by Mr. Stevens for the need to consolidate is that we are short staffed,” the petition states. “We are not short staffed; we are working at minimum staffing for the time being. That means there are still the same number of dispatchers working at a time in the center as there always has been.”
- The petition argues that the safety of residents of James City County will be negatively impactedif the merger takes place because the two centers currently serve as backups to each other if one fails. It also emphasizes that residents would lose their ability to make decisions about how services should be provided since the center would no longer be operated by James City County.
- “If the consolidated center fails, there would be no one at the backup center to answer phones for at least 45 minutes as dispatchers change locations. This would mean 4 jurisdictions would be without access to emergency services for at minimum 45 minutes,” the petition states.
- The James City County dispatch center is located in Toano, whereas the York-Poquoson-Williamsburg center is on Goodwin Neck Road in York County. Some James City County dispatchers say the drive to the York County is more cumbersome and they want to remain employees of James City County. Rinehimer said current dispatchers would be allowed to transfer internally to other positions within the County if they choose. But Supervisor John McGlennon expressed concern that such internal transfers would only further worsen the current staffing shortage among James City County dispatchers.
- County Administrator Scott Stevens acknowledged during the meeting that he met with dispatchers to discuss this issue, and many did not support the decision to outsource the center to York County. He added that the County could still decide against the merger and that it would take the input of employees and the public into account before making a final decision. Citizens can contact the Board of Supervisors directly by sending an email to [email protected].
2. Proposed 2024 budgets have been released in both James City County and the City of Williamsburg.
- City Manager Andrew O. Trivette has completed a proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal that recommends keeping in place the current real estate tax rate of 62 cents per $100 of assessed value. The plan was published on the City of Williamsburg’s website on March 31, 2023.
- While revenue was lower than expected because of inflation, City staff developed three budget priorities, according to a news release. Those priorities include 1) establishing the necessary funding to build a new downtown library, 2) improving the benefits package offered to City staff, and 3) eliminating the City’s reliance on U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds for public housing sites.
- “Even in these challenging times, we need to invest in our community’s future,” Trivette wrote in the proposed budget.
- The employee benefits improvement plan is the lowest cost of the three budget items and is fully funded in the proposed budget. About 45% of the needed funds are allocated in the budget for the other two priorities. The design for the new library is fully funded in the proposal, keeping the project on schedule by using a short- and long-term financing strategy.
- To see the full budget proposal, visit the City’s website. Local residents are also invited to voice their opinions during the next work session and regular meeting on April 10 and 13 or can email the city manager or council members to offer feedback. A budget for the 2024 fiscal year is set to be adopted on May 11.
In James City County:
- County Administrator Scott Stevens released a 2024 fiscal year budget thatwill keep current tax rates in place while increasing some other feesto meet upcoming goals.
- The $330.2 million budget is an increase of 42.7% over the current budget for fiscal year 2023.
- According to the County, the budget takes into account several key priorities, including providing top-notch services to the community, improving employee retention and recruitment efforts, enhancing the appearance of the community and investing in new capital projects. A large portion of the funds – $79.4 million – are allocated for capital projects, including a new preschool space, a new General Services Building and a new county-wide facility.
- All County employees will also receive a 5% raise under the proposal, effective July 1, and eligible employees will also see a salary increase of $1,500 in April.
- While the budget recommends keeping the current real estate and personal property tax rates in place, fee increases are proposed for the County’s Recreation Center, before and after school programs and ambulance transport service.
- The County is hosting two events to allow citizens to weigh in on the proposed budget. The first event will stream live on the website, on Facebook and on Cox cable channel 88 on Thursday, April 6 at 4:00 pm. Those interested in weighing in can send questions or comments before the meeting to [email protected]. A public hearing on the Proposed Budget will also be held on Tuesday, April 11 at 5:00 pm during the Board of Supervisors meeting at 101 Mounts Bay Road, Building F. Citizens can email the Board of Supervisors or call 757-253-6609 and leave a message to weigh in.
- A vote on the 2024 proposed budget will be held on May 9 at the Board of Supervisors meeting. The full budget can be viewed on James City County’s website.
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3. The former Yankee Candle building in Williamsburg has officially been sold to a family entertainment company.
- Uptown Alley, an “upscale family entertainment” venue, will officially be moving into the former Yankee Candle building in Williamsburg.
- The company completed its purchase of the building from Fulton Bank for $4 million, according to The Virginia Gazette. The building, which is located on a 6.5-acre lot at 2200 Richmond Road, will be renovated to accommodate the company’s vision of creating a multi-level venue. The center will feature upscale bowling, duckpin bowling, an arcade, a chef-driven restaurant and high-tech audio and video technology.
- While Uptown Alley’s plans for the site were generally well-received by the City Council, some local residents have spoken out against Uptown Alley’s proposal, expressing concerns about both traffic and noise. Council members, however, said the new facility will be required to abide by the City’s noise ordinance. The company’s owner, Steve Moore, also said that while the company operates go-karts at its other locations, entertainment offerings at the Williamsburg site will be indoors, and no go-karts will be available there.
- The site at 2200 Richmond Road has been vacant since Yankee Candle shut down in 2021. In November, the Williamsburg City Council unanimously voted to award a revenue sharing incentive to Uptown Valley and announced that the center plans to open in 2023.
- “Uptown Alley fills a need for more indoor entertainment options in the area,” Williamsburg Mayor Doug Pons said in a previous statement. “The owners are investing more than $12 million in the project, which will include renovations of one of the City’s largest commercial assets. We are pleased to welcome Uptown Alley to the Williamsburg business community.”
4. Abby Zwerner has filed a $40 million lawsuit against Newport News Public Schools.
- Abby Zwerner, the first-grade teacher who was shot by her 6-year-old student at Richneck Elementary School, has filed a $40 million lawsuit against Newport News officials. The lawsuit was announced Monday morning by Zwerner’s legal team on NBC News’ Today Show.
- Zwerner, 25, of York County, is alleging gross negligence and reckless breach of duty against the school board as well as three former school administrators. The administrators included in the suit are former Superintendent Dr. George Parker, former Principal Briana Foster-Newton and former Assistant Principal Dr. Ebony Parker, all of whom left their positions after the shooting occurred.
- According to Zwerner’s lawyers, administrators failed to protect the teacher from the 6-year-old, even though they were warned three times – by multiple employees – that the child brought a gun to school that day. The suit also claims the boy previously strangled a teacher while he was in kindergarten, so the administration had long been aware of his behavioral issues.
- See the full interview from The Today show below.
5. La Terraza opened a third location in Williamsburg.
- La Terraza Mexican Grill has opened a new location on the east side of Williamsburg. The establishment announced on its website that its newest restaurant at 264A McLaws Circle in the Market Place Shops complex – next to Maurizio’s Italian Restaurant – is now open for business.
- The restaurant specializes in Mexican favorites like fajitas, burritos, quesadillas and enchiladas. The menu features a wide variety of steak, seafood and vegetarian menu items.
- La Terazza also operates two other locations in town, including one on Richmond Road and another in the Monticello Marketplace shopping center near Target.
- Want to check it out? The new McLaws Circle location is openMonday-Thursday, 11:00 am – 10:00 pm, Friday, 11:00 am – 11:00 pm, Saturday, 11:30 am – 11:00 pm and Sunday, 11:30 am – 9:00 pm. For more information or to view a full menu, visit the restaurant’s website.
6. Virginia is becoming more reliant on provisional licenses to address teacher shortages.
- The Commonwealth is relying on provisional licenses more than ever as teacher shortages throughout the state continue. Virginia issued a total of 8,434 provisional licenses in 2021-2022 compared to an average of 6,787 in the year prior to Covid, Virginia Mercury reports.
- According to the Virginia Education Association, teachers have been leaving the profession in alarmingly high numbers, mostly due to low wages, heavy workloads and politicized work environments. The situation worsened after the onset of the pandemic, in part because of more challenging student populations.
- Provisional licenses are short-term, nonrenewable credentials, valid for up to three years. They’re given to teachers who have some teaching qualifications but haven’t yet met all of the state’s requirements to be certified. Those with provisional licenses have usually completed bachelor’s degrees from accredited universities but may not have completed coursework specific to teaching.
- Small districts, including Surry, have seen the highest increases in the use of provisionally licensed teachers, according to a report by JLARC.
- “What we’re seeing now with thousands of new people entering into these roles is very concerning because it seems to be plugging the gap for [the] teacher shortage crisis that has gotten so bad in this state, and this masks the magnitude of how bad it’s gotten,” Chad Stewart, policy analyst for the Virginia Education Association told the Mercury.
- Up next: The Virginia Department of Education is developing a new recruitment initiative in hopes of reducing the current reliance on provisionally-licensed teachers.
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